Amy Aileen Wood, “Rolling Stops” (Colorfield)

I'm not in the habit of writing about Grammy-winning drummers, but Amy Aileen Wood is a special case. She provided beats and co-production for Fiona Apple's wildly lauded Fetch the Bolt Cutters and has worked with St. Vincent, and now the LA-based musician's branching out as a solo artist with an auspicious debut album, The Heartening (out May 3).

Wood's instrumental arsenal promises interesting results, and she delivers. Besides a drum kit and piano, she plays balafon, kalimba, octobans, many synths (including Buchla and Moog), gamelan strips, gong strips, LinnDrum, and various percussion tools. Her accomplices include Ms. Apple on vocals for three songs, ex-Soul Coughing upright bassist Sebastian Steinberg, and bassist Pete Min, who co-wrote and co-produced The Heartening with Wood.

The vibe here is similar to that on solo LPs by exploratory drummer/percussionists such as Glenn Kotche, David Van Tieghem, and Glen Velez: genre tags are elusive, structures are loose, experimentation is paramount. The Heartening is neither strictly rock nor electronic music, though it has elements of both, with oblique hints of gamelan. This stylistic slipperiness keeps your ears on their toes (imagine that).

"Hiccups" is a subtly unsettling art song with fascinating percussion generated from gamelan strips and augmented by eerie wisps of Steinberg's autoharp. If you like all this newfangled chamber jazz coming out this decade, you'll dig "Number Zero," which is marked by Wood's dexterous and strange beat patterns and kalimba and Nicole McCabe's beautiful, low-lit saxophone ululations. Fiona Apple fans will want to scope "Time for Everything," on which she emits distinctive laughs, gasps, and groans while a bizarre strain of junkyard electro-pop clatters and bangs behind her. No conventional singing allowed here, thankfully. However, what is allowed are Kelsey Wood's stunning hymnal chants on the serpentine, seductive avant-pop of "Slow Light."  

Things get really strange with "The Learning Problem," whose rhythmic convolutions and punchy unpredictability, as well as abrasive, warped tones recall mid-'90s Autechre. Wood's slogan seems to be "always leave 'em baffled." The album's first single, "Rolling Stops," features Apple's scatting and cooing vocals, and its haunting, fractured jazz pop may make Kate Bush and Björk's more normcore fans run for the exits. However, I trust that you, reader, are more than equipped to enjoy the skewed maneuvers Wood orchestrates here. The Heartening is a dazzling debut that may be too much of a wizardly studio creation to take on the road, but I hope I'm wrong. 

JP Lenon, “Jovian Trench” (self-released) 

It's time to give a different drummer some love. Seattle's JP Lenon came to my attention during an interview this year with Afrocop keyboardist Noel Brass Jr., who also plays on the former's new full-length, Freewave, Lenon's seventh album since 2014. Somehow, his work has eluded my radar, but I'm immensely enjoying catching up with it via Lenon's bountiful Bandcamp page. Besides the command/manifesto on said page, "make it funky," there's little info about Lenon online, but his music speaks articulate volumes. 

Going back to his early recordings, we find that Visitor Volume One (2014) is pretty much a library-music album full of inventive funk and acute, mood-setting atmospheres. It can hold its own with the best of Heliocentrics and Natural Yogurt Band's output. Cosmic Radiation explores an otherworldly strain of reggae (2015) while Visitor Volume Three (2020) detours into instrumental hip-hop territory, bolstered by Far East Asian tonalities that would impress DJ Krush. Such effortless versatility and rhythmic savvy point to Lenon being the Pacific Northwest's Sven Wunder

On Freewave, Lenon and crew delve into myriad modes of jazz with utmost skill. "Pulse (beginnings)" ushers us in with exquisitely delicate and celestial ambient jazz, and your pulse rate will be dropping posthaste upon hearing it. The wonderfully titled "Surfing the Vortex" purveys rolling and tumbling spiritual jazz capped by a gorgeous sax solo by Jackson Cotugno. The mellow, contemplative jazz of "Introspection" doesn't ask much from you, but rather gently urges you to chill the fuck out and worry about nada

"Freewave" itself is eventful astral jazz full of inquisitive bass motifs from Owen Thayer (or is it Alex Dyring?), radiant keyboard drones and sparkling clusters from Brass Jr. and Charles Wicklander, and gently oscillating Electric Wind Instrument by Cotugno. It's redolent of Herbie Hancock's Mwandishi band at their most serene. Dim the lights for "Interplanar"'s downtempo jazz funk, with Thayer's seductive bass line causing erotic friction with those crystalline keyboards and EWI. These musicians are operating on a supremely high level at which virtuosity's put in the service of lubriciousness. 

Freewave's peak occurs on "Jovian Trench," which sounds like Miles Davis's In a Silent Way band cutting a library record designed to score a complicated criminal enterprise with erotic undercurrents. The skeins of suspense and intrigue run deep. After several listens to Freewave, I have to shake my head in disbelief that Mr. Lenon is not signed to a prestigious label.